MoJ seeks £2m polygraph partner ahead of major trial of lie detectors for offenders

Minister floats potential six-year deal as use of lie-detectors set to be greatly expanded


Credit: Sebastian Kahnert/DPA/PA Images

HM Prison and Probation Service is seeking a long-term commercial partner to deliver polygraph equipment, training and support services.

The service’s parent department, the Ministry of Justice, has published a contract notice seeking a company that can source machines for use and provide training to staff.  Bids for the deal are open until 4 January.

The contract, worth up to £2m to the winning bidder, is due to come into effect in March 2021 and last for four years – plus two optional one-year extensions. 

“The Ministry of Justice requires specialist polygraph training, quality assurance and purchasing of equipment, in order to support staff in both prison and probation roles,” the ministry said. “This training should provide staff members with the knowledge to use the polygraph instrument to the standard approved by the American Polygraph Association.”

The procurement exercise comes as the use of polygraph tests – commonly referred to as lie-detector tests – is set to be trialled ahead of a possible major expansion across the justice system throughout England and Wales.

Two pending pieces of legislation, the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Counter Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – will provide for mandatory polygraph testing for certain offenders considered to be ‘high risk’.

According to the government, this expansion of the deployment of lie-detection comes after “polygraph examinations have been successfully used in the management of sexual offenders since January 2013”.

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“They are used to monitor compliance with licence conditions and the information obtained during testing is used by offender managers to refine and improve risk management plans,” it added.

In a pilot scheme taking place over three years from 2021, 300 people convicted of domestic abuse offences and given a custodial sentence of a year or more will be subject to mandatory polygraph testing once they are released on licence.

Offenders will be required to sit a lie-detector test three months after their release and then – so long as they do not fail a test – every six months thereafter. Failures may result in more frequent testing.

Although failing a test will not be sufficient for the offender to be automatically recalled to custody, they may be made subject to more stringent licence conditions. Refusing to take a test will, however, be considered grounds for recall, as will deliberate attempts to “trick” the test – although it is not clear what would constitute such an attempt.

Any licence breaches disclosed during a polygraph test will also see offenders recalled to custody.

For comparison purposes, the pilot will also encompass a further 300 offenders who will not be subjected to polygraph tests, as well as a further “discretionary group who can also be made subject to mandatory testing”. 

“These would include those who meet the legal criteria but do not necessarily meet the test of being of at high risk of causing serious harm,” the government said. “This cohort will include those where there are sufficient concerns about the offender’s risk of re-offending, so as to justify mandatory testing to manage the risk that the offender poses in the community.”

If the pilot is judged – by a specially commissioned “independent academic body” – to have been a success, the government ultimately intends to “roll out mandatory polygraph examinations to all high-risk domestic abuse perpetrators in England and Wales”.

Alongside this trial, lie-detection will also soon become an optional licence condition for those considered to be high risk, having been released on licence from a custodial term of more than a year resulting from a conviction for a terrorism-related offence.

But, unlike for domestic abuse offenders, there will be no piloting of the scheme before its introduction.

“The reason we are not doing so for terrorist offenders is that of volume,” said the government. “There are far fewer terrorist cases than there are domestic abuse perpetrators, and so there are insufficient numbers to carry out a pilot which would produce meaningful results. What the government will do, however, is conduct a robust internal review of testing terrorists after a two-year period.”

For both sets of offenders, the government has sought to pre-empt potential concerns about the reliability of polygraph testing – which remains inadmissible as evidence in criminal trials.

Posing itself the question “is polygraph testing reliable?”, it answered by pointing to a “meta-analysis” exercise undertaken by the American Polygraph Association which it said found “an accuracy rate of 89% [and] an inconclusive rate of 11%”. 

Furthermore, the government cited what it claimed was an “independent academic evaluation” of the use of lie-detector tests with sexual offenders in the UK.

“Polygraph testing has increased the chances that a sexual offender under supervision in the community will reveal information relevant to their management, supervision, treatment, or risk assessment,” said the evaluation, according to the government. “It has also increased the likelihood of preventative actions being taken by offender managers to protect the public from harm.”

Both the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Counter Terrorism and Sentencing Bill have completed their journey through the House of Commons, and are now undergoing the various stages of reading and debate in the House of Lords. Once Royal Assent has been granted – which will likely be next year – both will be passed into law.


Sam Trendall

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